Ven, Nena and Elizabeth Tayor – a Memoir
Victorino Cristito Briones
“It fell into the pond,” said Nena.
Every year, on their wedding anniversary, surrounded by her closest friends, Nena would recount the morning she was married in 1956, during the early days of March to avoid the tropical cyclones that frequently ravaged the Philippine archipelago. As always, she highlighted the story of the small, gray, single engine plane that circled the church tower three times on a cloudless day before spitting out a wreath of white flowers. It was an antiquated ceremony performed by the Air Force for weddings and funerals, though the practice had fallen into disfavor with the public because of the obvious danger of injuring, if not killing, unwary bystanders. The wreath, aimed at a bright orange X mark painted in the middle of the lawn, rolled and twisted in the air until a sudden gust of wind blew it toward the grotto fountain where it plunged into the water, sinking under green moss and water lilies.
Superstitious since childhood, Nena interpreted the mishap as a premonition of misfortunes to come in her marriage. An avid fan of daytime soap operas on the radio, which she listened to every afternoon without fail, she predicted that her new husband would become unfaithful to her and that the two of them would quarrel endlessly. Nena pictured an enchanting mistress who would seduce her husband and threaten to tear their marriage apart. If fate were cruel, Nena imagined, she would end up alone and abandoned while her husband and the other woman gallivanted without remorse.
During the time it took for the best man to fish the soaked wreath out of the fountain, and for the crowd to walk from the church to the wedding reception at a nearby restaurant, and for all the guests to gather, take their seats and settle down in the banquet hall, and for the waiters to dry the wreath with towels and display it on a pedestal behind the newlyweds, Nena decided to forgive her new husband for an indefensible sin he had not yet committed. After reviewing her promise to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part, she answered her doubts by asserting the same “I do” she had declared in front of the priest earlier that morning. She fell in love with her husband all over again as naturally as the first time she had met him, refashioning him in her mind reborn and repentant and herself ready and confident to confront any adversity in her new role as wife and the future mother to his many children.
Inside the hall, the best man called everyone to attention by gently tapping the edge of his champagne glass with a knife. He stood on his chair so that he could toast the new couple, Venerando and Josefa Briones, wishing them a big, healthy family and a joyous, happy life together.
“To Ven and Nena,” everyone echoed.
The newlyweds kissed, embraced and thanked everyone for joining them in the celebration. A live band performed their favorite love song. Afterwards, the enthusiastic guests stood up to dance in the middle of the room when the mambo was played. The party lasted past midnight, ending with Ven and Nena asleep in each other’s arms.
In truth, however, despite Nena’s fear of her husband’s infidelity, Ven remained loyal, devoted and faithful for all the twenty-eight years of their marriage. Certainly, he was tempted by many women, including his secretary, who wore short skirts to show off her smooth legs and perfumed her bare arms to beguile him. She had the uncanny ability of deciphering Ven’s inscrutable handwriting, and she typed and took dictation like a well-oiled machine. Ven was never lured by her attempts at seduction, rather, he admired her power to distract and calm down his male clients, who were often worried about the outcome of their lawsuits.
Before he became a lawyer, Ven was a retired Air Force major. Tall and dashing, with a full head of thick black hair, a wide forehead, and an infectious smile, he could open beers bottles with his perfect set of teeth and possessed a youthful confidence that his comrades admired. Whenever opportunity arose, especially when friends came to visit, he bragged about his early years of training in the military, participating in grueling races, completing a thousand pushups each morning, then a thousand sit-ups before lunchtime. Together with a hundred men, he claimed, he jogged around the compound until many of them had fallen to the ground from exhaustion. In the end, only he remained standing at the finish line with hands on his hips, coaxing his platoon to go on.
Ven and Nena met during the monthly dance party hosted by the Bridgettine Sisters to help disabled World War II veterans who awaited pensions from the government and their promised U.S. citizenship. She had just turned twenty-one, graduated from the University of Santo Tomas, in the college of accounting, and was ready to claim her independence with a new job at the post-office. She wore a white dress borrowed from a friend that was cut too short, she thought, just below the knee. With round olive eyes, a lock of her black hair curling over the right side of her forehead, smooth skin, and small, pretty hands, Nena looked like a glamorous Hollywood actress. Ven wore a snappy Air Force uniform with wide belt buckles and a vest whose pockets were trimmed with brass buttons. In the dance hall, he walked over and asked her name. Preoccupied by her short skirt, Nena paid no attention. Later, though, she agreed to join him on the dance floor for a mambo. Eventually, he got her phone number and promised to call her back the following morning.
All their friends agreed that they were too different to be a good match. Ven was gregarious and impulsive, Nena quiet and careful. For her, every decision—which university to attend, what job to hold, whether to buy a new pair of shoes--required scrutiny and late nights of painstaking calculation.
Once, it took her a week to decide whether to purchase a yellow or blue dress, and she wrote out a list of pros and cons on her note pad. Then after choosing the yellow one, she took another week to make the purchase, and did so only after assessing the dress as an investment. Finally in the store, she utilized the negotiating skills she had learned from her mother, bargaining with the salesgirl to reduce the price of the garment by almost half.
On the other hand, Ven often decided on-the-spot, though perhaps regretting the consequences later. One morning he bought a 1920s Excelsior 20R motorcycle made in Chicago without even testing it on the road first or checking the number of miles on the odometer, claiming he fell in love with the red paint of the handlebars and fenders because, he said, they reminded him of Nena’s lips. He went to church only for appearances, while she was a devout Roman Catholic with unshakable beliefs derived from the literal words in the Bible. It was a great surprise to everyone when Ven and Nena suddenly announced their engagement six months after they first met. In many ways they came together as opposites, like a dovetail joint, complementing each other’s strengths and weaknesses to build their own small corner of the world.
Ven and Nena bought a house in a suburb of Manila, an hour’s drive away from his office during rush hour. Initially, a maid was hired to help Nena out with chores; two other servants and a gardener joined the household when the family began to grow. They had their disagreements, of course, though mostly minor. One of them, in the second year of their marriage, got out of hand.
Inside a shoebox kept from his bachelor days, Ven had saved a postcard-size black and white photo of Elizabeth Taylor. The actress had black hair, a radiant expression, wore a pearl necklace, and showed off more of her bosom than was decent in those days. Coming across it one afternoon, Ven decided not to throw it out with the other mementos of his youth. Instead, he framed it and set it on his desk at home, adjacent to his and Nena’s wedding photos. Nena considered Ven’s action blatantly disrespectful to her as his wife and the mother of their first child. But she tried to laugh off the display as a kind of prank, which she resolved to put an end to by making her feelings unmistakably clear.
While Ven was sitting at his desk typing, she took the photo, threw it in the waste basket with dramatic flair and said, “Miss Taylor does not live here.”
She thought that was that, but before she had left the room, Ven picked up the photo in silence and put it back at the center of his desk. Nena responded by carefully removing the picture from the frame, and tearing it to pieces. She walked out before Ven could say anything. Later she informed him that he could cook his own dinner that evening.
For the next two weeks, Ven and Nena did not speak to each other, relying on the servants and the gardener to carry messages back and forth. In the end, it was Ven who gave in, sending his wife a Valentine card in the middle of August, and a bottle of expensive perfume as a sign of his surrender. In the interest of reconciliation, Nena displayed the card on the dresser table and wore the perfume constantly.
Unbeknown to Nena, Ven kept another copy of the same photograph in a locked drawer. He prized the photograph not because of his affection for Elizabeth Taylor, but simply as a good-luck charm. He had carried it in his pocket for many years while taking the annual exams in the university and then also during the Law Board Exams, where he had placed in the top three percent above other examiners. Together with a rabbit’s foot won in a bet, a luminescent pebble found in the local river and lint from the cape of the miraculous black Virgin Mary of Quiapo, Miss Taylor’s photo had often proven its power to bring him good fortune, which included meeting Nena in the dance hall. Known for the high value he placed on reason and common sense, Ven was reluctant to tell his wife that carrying the photograph was his own allegiance to superstition.
Nineteen years and eight children later, Ven and Nena had four daughters and four sons. Their first child, Carmencita, was born in the first year of their marriage; then almost every two or three years afterward, Nena was expecting again. By her seventh child, Nena had become so accustomed to pregnancy that she opted to deliver the infant at home assisted by a midwife. Expecting her eighth child, Nena again delivered in her bed without incident during an early Sunday morning, then later in the afternoon had enough strength to attend Mass together with her eldest daughter. Nena promised that the eighth child would be her last, and she took the contraceptive drugs her friend smuggled to her in secret because the church condemned such practices as immoral.
* * *
One morning, Nena felt an itch on the back of her neck and thought it was the insect bite she had gotten the day before while reading her Bible in the garden. She applied Tiger Balm Red and made every effort not to scratch the area. But a week later the same spot turned numb, and the itch became a sharp pain as if a needle was stuck in her spine. While walking to church one Sunday, she felt the pain shoot down her back and travel to her thighs. Her knees buckled, and she fell to the ground, scraping her hands when she tried to break her fall. After she had recovered and gone home, she downplayed the incident, blaming it on her own clumsiness. Massaging her legs, she promised never to wear high-heeled shoes anymore.
In the weeks that followed, she found it difficult to climb the stairs; eventually she couldn’t even walk to church. Every Sunday morning a seminarian delivered Communion bread to the house while she stayed in bed and listened to Mass on the radio. At times she called to her children for assistance in showering and changing her clothes. At one point, she couldn’t lift her hand to comb her hair.
When Ven urged her to see a doctor, Nena replied, “The hospital is no different from a cemetery.”
Her argument was rooted in the belief that few of those who went to the hospital walked out alive. She recalled the catastrophe that occurred when her mother was brought to consult a physician because of a stomach ache; she died three days later. In truth, her mother suffered from a ruptured appendix, and her death resulted not from any action or inaction by the doctors, but from the unfortunate fact that she was far too gone by the time she received medical care.
As another fatal example, Nena cited their neighbor Mr. Tinio, who was brought to the hospital in the morning and came back home in a coffin before the end of the day. She forgot to add that Mr. Tinio was eighty years old, afflicted with uncontrolled diabetes, had two heart attacks that year, and suffered a massive stroke, which caused his death. Nena seemed determined to associate the institution of medicine with premature mortality.
One night, as she lay in bed, the pain in her back became so unremitting and unbearable that she agreed to go to the hospital not to find a cure for the pain but rather to confront death, which seemed easier than enduring anymore torture. The day before she left for the hospital, Nena’s two sisters took the children and promised to look after them while she was away. Nena prepared a list of things to do after she died, specifying the proper distribution of her possessions, where she should be buried, whom should sew her burial dress, and which shoes to put on her feet in the coffin. She also reminded Ven to mail thank you notes to those who sent condolence cards and flowers. Finally she asked her eldest daughter to go to church to offer seven novenas for her soul.
“You’re not having brain surgery,” Ven pointed out.
“It’s best to prepare for the worst,” she replied.
After getting into the car, Nena said goodbye to all their children, who at her request had lined up in the driveway. She was convinced she would never see them again.
“Carmencita, don’t forget to pray the rosary every night and light a candle for your grandmother every week,” she said. “Junior, take care of your brothers and sisters. Beth, eat more, you’re looking thin every day. Ella, don’t forget to water the plants. Marissa, stop fighting with your sisters. Jojo, stay away from trouble. Joel, study hard and get good grades in school. Obey your aunts, Victor.”
The children waved to her, and she nodded her head because she couldn’t lift her hand to wave back.
Blood work was done, x-rays and scans were performed but the doctors were unable to find the cause of her pain. Nena had given up, putting her fate in God’s hands.
What was supposed to be a short stay, however, turned into six months. The doctors had to transfer her to the intensive care unit when an unexpected infection set in after one of the procedures. The incident left her confined to bed and assisted by a respirator that barely kept her alive. It was a disastrous and frightening period that tested Ven’s agnosticism. Carrying a plastic bag containing his good luck charms, including Elizabeth Taylor’s photograph, he knelt in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary in the hospital chapel and promised he would donate half the money that he earned that year to the local church if Nena recovered.
Ven’s prayers were answered; Nena recuperated and came home on a hot afternoon at the end of July. It was a turning point in his life, making more of an impression on him than when his grandmother, blind for ten years proclaimed she was blessed with sight after kissing the feet of a statue of Saint Francis. At the moment when the doctors said that Nena was going to live, Ven almost believed in God, yet Nena left the hospital unable to move and feel her legs, constrained to a wheelchair.
The chair had four wheels, green plastic armrests, and yellow cushions at the back. As Ven slowly pushed Nena into the living room, their youngest child, Victor, who was now four years old, rushed over to greet them. Ven adjusted the green knobs on each side of the chair to lock the big wheels. Complaining of the heat, he fanned Nena with a folded newspaper. Victor stepped closer to observe the shiny metal knobs, inserting his fingers between the spokes, touching the armrests and playing with the green levers of the brakes, wondering whether the strange contraption was a toy for his upcoming birthday.
When Ven lifted Nena from her chair to transfer her to the bed, he thought she seemed heavier, with her paralyzed legs always getting in the way. After he laid her in bed, the children surrounded her with pillows to prevent her from accidentally rolling off and falling on the floor.
The paralysis had also affected her hands, and her fingers had become too weak to hold a pen. When she wanted to write letters to her friends, make a list of groceries to buy in the market or compose an entry in her daily journal, her elder daughter took dictation. Nena was forced to censure her thoughts because she was afraid to worry her children by voicing her fears. She was required to wear a catheter, which sent her urine into a plastic bag dangling by her side. Even the most basic task, such as holding a spoon, was difficult for her to manage, and she thought of taping utensils to her hands.
“This is my fault,” said Ven one night. “I was the one who encouraged you to go to the hospital.”
“It’s no one’s fault,” she replied. She remembered the white wreath on her wedding day and the ominous meaning she had attached to it as it missed its target in the church lawn. Now she knew the truth behind the mishap. To herself she whispered, “It fell into the pond.”
Ven overcame his guilt by drawing on the sense of pragmatism and determination he had cultivated during his air Force career. The doctors said Nena would never walk again; he vowed to prove them wrong. He said that nothing was impossible, giving as an example the successful landing of an American astronaut on the moon.
One morning, Ven bought lumber, metal pipes, and carpentry tools to build a machine that would energize Nena’s legs. Working outside, he unrolled a drawing on the grass. Lines, squares, circles, and penciled notes covered the paper. He had stapled on inspiring newspaper and magazine clippings about rejuvenating machines. He measured Nena’s weight and height so that he could design a foundation strong enough to hold her.
“First, this will help you stand up straight.” He pointed at a diagram, “And this will keep your knees from bending. While this,” and he showed her a different sketch, “will set your feet firmly on the ground.” Pointing to another draft, he added, “I’ll use my old parachute suit to hold your whole body up.”
He rushed into the house and brought out the motorcycle helmet he wore when he rode his bike. It was painted orange and yellow with white lightning bolts on both sides. Gently he fitted it around Nena’s head.
“Perfect,” he said. “You’ll see, Nena. We’ll be dancing the mambo together again soon.”
Inspired by Ven’s plans to make their mother walk again, the children helped cook broiled tuna and honey-coated fried chicken dipped in vinegar that Sunday for lunch. Later that day, Carmencita prepared special porridge with salted fish. For dinner, they had duck eggs, Chinese noodles mixed with vegetables, and squid simmered in coconut milk. Instead of telling his usual daring Air Force stories, Ven recalled his boyhood adventures swimming in the ocean off the island of Cebu, where he grew up.
“After your mother starts walking again,” he said, “we’ll all take a vacation.”
Two weeks later, the whole family gathered outside to witness the unveiling of Ven’s contraption. The apparatus had two even parallel bars, belts fastened on either side, crisscrossing rubber bands, and a harness hung from a steel pole overhead. Ropes and wires attached the pieces together. Ven explained that Nena would dangle from the ropes while the belts supported both her paralyzed legs. Dubious and skeptical, Nena agreed to try the exercises not so much because she believed that the elaborate contraption would actually make her walk again, but rather she felt obliged to bolster Ven’s self-confidence.
As he led her into the apparatus, Nena felt like a prisoner on her way to the execution chamber. Straps were wrapped around her wrists and ankles, belts were tightened, a board was fastened to her back, and braces were locked behind her knees. She put on the motorcycle helmet but was baffled by other parts of the machine, which seemed to have no function. In the end, she was left standing up, frozen in her position like a puppet hanging on taut strings.
For two hours, Nena remained attached to the contraption. Several times, her legs went into sudden violent spasms, whipping left and right. The anxious children stood a few feet away, listening to their father’s instructions. Carmencita feared that the ropes and wires would entangle around her mother’s neck and strangle her. As a precaution, Carmencita kept a pair of pliers and her giant sewing scissors nearby, ready to attack the machine and to dismember it if suddenly one of the crisscrossing ropes, wires or rubber bands snapped.
“I’m tired, Ven,” said Nena.
“One more hour, Nena,” Ven urged.
She held on to the bars at her sides as Ven moved and bent her legs forward. An hour later, Ven said that she had done enough for the day. He dismantled the contraption and released Nena from its hold. Gently he lowered her back into the wheelchair, announcing that the family should celebrate that night because Nena had finished the first day towards her complete recovery.
For the next three months, Nena performed the exercises three or four times a week. None of the children noticed any improvement. Ven argued that, since her legs were not shriveling up like their neighbor’s who suffered from polio, the machine must be working. Every time her legs went into violent spasms, he said, “There, Mama is trying to move. Good, Nena!”
When Nena asked the doctors about the spasms, they said that they were nothing more than reflex movements. Tickling her feet, they showed her, elicited the same response.
Nena battled her illness in the same way that she had always understood the world, which was filled with good and evil spirits vying for the attention of mortals. For three days she did not eat any meat except chicken so that her body would be cleansed of poison, which she claimed was present in every animal that walked on all fours. In the backyard, she offered a basket of fruits for the malicious phantom that lived in the branches high in the mango tree beneath which she recalled first feeling the insect bite that started her misery. She bought new clothes for the statues of saints inside the house and surrounded their altars with fresh flowers every day for a month. Deciding that all this was not enough, she sought out Mrs. Lualhati, who sold flowery umbrellas in the market but was also a well known fortune-teller and faith-healer.
When Mrs. Lualhati smiled, only two teeth appeared. Her cracked lips were almost black. The corners of her mouth were stained gray, she bit on a lighted cigar where saliva drooled down the side of her chin. Arriving in the morning soon after Ven had left the house for work, she greeted Nena with a handshake. It was hot and humid, but Mrs. Lualhati didn’t sweat.
First, she gave instructions to the children and the servants on how to rid the house of the evil spirits that were the cause of Nena’s paralysis.
Mrs. Lualhati lifted up Nena’s skirt to look at her legs.
“Ah, there. There they are,” she said.
“What do you see?” asked Nena.
“How many?” asked Victor.
“A dozen in each leg. And two are pregnant.”
Mrs. Lualhati acknowledged that Nena’s various attempts to get rid of or appease the malevolent ghosts in the house had only concentrated them in her legs. She advised that Nena was not under some demonic possession in the usual sense because she neither suffered convulsions nor levitated, which were always present in such cases. Barely listening to Mrs. Lualhati, Nena grimaced as she looked at her swollen ankles, her toenails had turned thick and yellow.
“Soon, the spirits will start eating the bones. After that it will be too late,” Mrs. Lualhati added.
Victor hunched forward, hoping to witness the spirits she described. The boy opened an empty mayonnaise bottle that he often used to trap flies, spiders and grasshoppers and positioned himself to be ready when the ghosts emerged.
“Can I catch one of them here,” he requested.
“And what will you do with the spirits?” said Mrs. Lualhati.
“I want to know what they look like,” he answered.
“You can’t keep them inside bottles. Only naughty boys can see them. Would you like one of them to visit you tonight?” she teased.
The terrified boy shook his head.
“When can you perform the ceremony, Mrs. Lualhati?” said Nena.
“I’ve brought everything I need, Mrs. Briones,” Raising her market basket, she told Nena that she must remain a devout believer in the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost in order to drive the devils out of her possessed legs.
First, Mrs. Lualhati slit the throat of a red-eyed rooster and she let the blood spill into a white bowl. She lined up two dozen raw eggs over a pillow, picking up one after another, rolling it over Nena’s knees and then her thighs, murmuring a prayer as she did so. Afterwards she broke an egg over another bowl, and a black tadpole squirmed out, frightening Victor away to a corner, where he clutched his jar.
“That’s one of them,” she said, tilting the bowl toward Nena.
Mrs. Lualhati repeated the ritual twelve times on each leg, and each time a different piece of black, wet flesh emerged from the broken egg. Sometimes it was a tadpole, most of the time it appeared to be a piece of chicken liver or part of an intestine. She cautioned her audience, composed of Nena’s eight children, the three servants and the gardener, to stand at a distance so as not to get infected by the evil spirits. Afterwards, she wiped her hands clean with a towel, mumbling an incomprehensible prayer. She took out a small knife from her basket, cut a tiny X on Nena’s right ankle and dripped candle wax on her thighs, causing both her legs to jerk violently.
“Hold her feet,” she ordered. “The spirits are trying to return.”
She made another X shaped cut on Nena’s shin, and then another next to her left knee; drops of blood formed over the wounds. Carmencita protested, but Nena assured her children that she didn’t feel anything.
After the exorcism was finished and Mrs. Lualhati had left, Nena remained in bed the rest of the day. Victor poked her legs with his finger to see if his mother had been cured. But the spasms returned as the boy brushed the sole of her foot with a chicken feather he had plucked from Mrs. Lualhati’s rooster.
“Can you walk now, Mama?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Maybe tomorrow,” she said.
When Ven arrived home later that night, Nena wore a long dress to cover her legs and her ankles, with only her toes sticking out from under her skirt. Ven held a bottle of lotion ready to massage her feet and prepare her muscles for the weekly exercises. Nena declined, explaining that she was too tired and she needed to help prepare food on the table for dinner and to make certain the children finished their assignments in school.
She rolled herself away and complained about the numerous chores she had to finish. Ven stepped in front of her and blocked her path to the kitchen. He lifted her skirt slightly to expose part of her feet. Ven gasped, and then he clicked his tongue and shook his head slowly. Nena’s ankles up to her thighs were inflamed and covered with cuts. Although most were already crusted over and healed, some were still fresh and open. The hot candle wax had left pink, spotted areas on her skin. He refrained from touching her legs, afraid that the wound might start bleeding again.
“What happened?” he demanded.
Ven was not amused when he heard about Mrs. Lualhati’s visit to the house. He had long ago concluded that fortune-tellers and faith-healers were scam artists more intent on taking money from the gullible than providing cures.
“Does it hurt, Nena?” said Ven.
“I don’t feel anything,” she replied.
The following morning, Ven took time off from work and told Nena that they should start the leg exercises on the machine again. Nena ticked off a list of excuses to delay her torture.
“We have to continue exercising your legs, or else you won’t be able to walk again,” Ven insisted.
“The machine doesn’t work, Ven,” she said. “Let’s give it up.”
“If we keep trying, of course it’ll work,” replied Ven.
“I’m tired of this, Ven.”
“You have to give it more time.”
Ignoring him, Nena asked Carmencita to push her back into the house. Ven kept calling her to return to the backyard. Nena turned on the radio and opened her Bible, drowning him out.
After that, Ven and Nena didn’t talk to each other for three days, not out of anger, but because their fruitless endeavors had left them frustrated and exhausted. Ven typed in his office, and Nena stayed in the kitchen, both of them communicating through their children. It rained during the night, and Ven’s contraption had been left outside. The following morning Ven found the machine ruined in the rain. He took a deep breath and went back into his office to work. Once the sun came out, he covered the contraption with sackcloth and secured it with rope, and the children helped him push it into the garage.
Later in the week, Ven moved his typewriter, table, file cabinet, and volumes of law books into the dining room, and he hired a carpenter to remodel his office as a special bathroom for Nena. Not long afterwards, Ven squirted oil into the wheels of her chair to repair the creaking sound from the rusted bearings. He sold his vintage motorcycle and used the money to widen the doors and rebuild parts of the house to make it convenient for Nena to move around. She watched Mass on television and continued to receive the Communion bread at home delivered by a seminarian every Sunday morning. Buzzers were installed all over the house to make it easier for her to call the children with various rings. Three short rings signaled the youngest, Victor, three long ones were for Carmencita, and so on. Together with his eldest son, Ven designed a giant Roman balance adjusted with weights and counterweights to lift Nena from the chair to the bed and from the bed back to the chair.
One evening after dinner, Ven fetched his old Air Force leather gloves, cut it up and converted the material into a multipurpose tool that Nena could wear and to which she could attach a spoon when she ate or a pen when she needed to write. Although Nena never regained her beautiful handwriting, at least she could again write in her daily journal without having to dictate and divulge her secret thoughts to her children.
The seamstress came over to refashion all of Nena’s clothes, including her favorite yellow dress. Nena asked to have one long zipper at the back, and to take out all the buttons and sleeves to make it easier for her to wear and remove her clothes. A secret pouch was constructed to hide the plastic urinal bag and the skirt was extended further down to cover her feet.
On their twentieth wedding anniversary, a year after Nena was stricken, the whole family went out to dine in the same restaurant where she and Ven had held their reception. The owner was an old friend of the family and he had built a platform alongside the stairway to the entrance to make it convenient for Nena to roll inside, and a slightly bigger and higher table was designed to accommodate her wheelchair.
The anniversary cake with twenty lighted candles was brought out, and Ven and Nena’s friends and family joined in singing “Happy anniversary” to the tune of “Happy birthday”. Nena’s once beautiful hands were now disfigured like claws. Ven’s hair was gone; he had turned almost bald despite the diligent application of Aloe vera, Rogaine and other ointments. He was missing a tooth, which broke off a few months ago after attempting to open a beer bottle with his teeth like before, though his wide smile remained contagious. The band played a mambo, Ven and Nena were content to hold hands on the side of the room and watch as the guests and their children danced on floor.
Later that night, Nena’s best friends gathered around her as they reminisced about their life. “It fell into the pond,” she said about her wedding day twenty years ago, recalling the small, gray plane spitting out a wreath of flowers that went astray. She smiled because the wreath had done its worst to her, and she was still alive, still with Ven, and able to look back on what she now saw as the happiest day of her life.
Victorino Cristito Briones is a medical physician and research scientist currently residing both in the United States and the Philippines. Aside from his medical degree, he also has a Master of Arts from Boston University in the Department of Creating Writing and a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology from Georgetown University, Washington, DC. This memoir is about his parents, how they met, raised eight children and lived in the Philippines.